1931 // France // Alexander Korda
I have been hesitated with the intention of reviewing Marius the film alone before complete The Marseille Trilogy, since often, alongside with Fanny (1932) and César (1936), it is reviewed as an entirety of a trilogy rather than individually. Eventually I resisted the temptation to indulge into Fanny after the first film ended and chose to contemplate them separately. Frankly, I’m a bit disappointed with the overall pacing in Marius until it reaches the climax, and the time it spends on the “side characters”, as a caricature of the French port-life of Marseille in the late 20s and early 30s, is not that impressive thematically. Yet I have a strong belief that it would rather pay off fruitfully upon repeated viewing or looking back after completing the trilogy as a whole.
Directed by the Hungary-born director Alexander Korda, Marius is a film owns much more, if not equally, to its creator Marcel Pagnol, the playwright-turned filmmaker and the script writer for the entire trilogy. Marcel Pagnol would direct the finale César himself, but for the first part of the trilogy, he collaborated with Korda in which he directed the actors and Korda directed the film. Indeed the majority of actors have a theatrical/music hall background, in particular Raimu, who played the portside bar owner and widower César, had a theatrical physicality in every gesture and expression. The film is rooted firmly to its theatrical origin, exceptionally apparent during the indoor scenes when Pagnol directed our attention on the witty and satirical dialogues which were delivered (over)dramatically by the actors.
The cinematic sense only came alive when Korda played with light and shadow on the screen, or when the camera left the studio set onto the real location of Marseille. However, there are multiple occasions when one character walks out from the bar (a set) to the outdoor area (port) with a awkward cut as demarcation, these unfortunately took me out of the film. Considering the film was made in 1931 when cinema was just adjusting itself from silent to sound, the “substandard” technicalities are understandable.
The story of Marius is straightforward and familiar. A young man Marius (Pierre Fresnay), son of César, aspired to sail and explore the world is conflicted by the mutual love with his sweet heart Fanny (Orane Demazis). He was fed up with the mundane of being a bartender and dreamed of the tantalising adventures. His only reason of not leaving already, as he admitted later, was due to his love to Fanny. Yet he’s not a one to reveal his hidden feeling easily. Meanwhile Panisse (Fernand Charpin), a middle-aged sailmaker and a newly widower, proposed to marry Fanny. Marius’s jealousy created a heated and comical tension between the two men while Fanny made use of the chance to confirm Marius’s affection. There are twist and turn, no less lies and self-sacrifice, as well as the involvement of César and Fanny’s mother (Alida Rouffe) in the talk of a potential marriage between their child. The circumstance of the love story has a dragging feeling at times, and unsurprisingly it led to a bitter end.
As sad as it sounds, the film itself is quite light-hearted. There is comic relief induced from the interaction between César and his comrades, including the wealthy sidekick Panisse, the ferry captain and local-renowned cuckold Escartefigue (Paul Dullac) as well as the Lyonnaise port inspector Monsieur Brun (Robert Vattier). They conveyed the essence of Provence through the use of dialect and their native performance. Their inclusion enriched the story slightly, but they are underutilized even for a film over two hours. Although the film is named Marius, it’s actually Raimu’s César that got my most attention. César is a patriarchal smartass so to speak, but Raimu imbued the character with humanity and warmth and kept the film from being a mere satirical comedy. Raimu delivered Pagnol’s dialogues in a vivid, albeit comical, pace and tone. It exemplified the description by the great French film critic André Bazin on Pagnol as the only director from the 30s to risk “a verbal excess comparable to the visual excess of D.W. Griffith or Erich von Stroheim.” I cannot agree more, and I’m afraid there is more than I would like to agree.